Catastrophe over New York: The 1960 collision of United Airlines flight 826 and TWA flight 266
On the 16th of December 1960, two airliners collided at 5,000 feet over New York City, raining debris over Staten Island and reducing a row of Brooklyn brownstones to burning rubble. The disaster claimed the lives of 134 people, including six on the ground and all of those aboard the two planes, despite a spirited attempt to save the life of a charismatic 11-year-old passenger, who hung on for just one more day.
The crash, the deadliest in history at the time, immediately led to soul-searching in America’s aviation industry, which had spent the last four years embarking on an ambitious modernization program aimed at reducing the risk of mid-air collisions. Huge sums of money were spent to rapidly expand radar coverage throughout the country and incorporate its use into day-to-day operations, and yet two airliners under radar control in the skies over America’s largest city had come together anyway. What went wrong? What gaps remained in the system? Looking back from over six decades later, there were quite a few. In fact, despite the introduction of radar, it was still commonplace for aircraft to find themselves under their own navigation in some of the nation’s busiest airspace, which was just one ingredient in a recipe for disaster that also involved faulty equipment, a complicated navigational puzzle, and an air crew’s unfamiliarity with the performance of their brand new jet airliner. This sequence of events not only revealed how the air traffic control system remained immature and incomplete, but also led to changes in the way we fly that many pilots today probably take for granted.
Today, when you board an airliner, you are in the hands of air traffic control from takeoff to touchdown almost everywhere in the world, save for remote parts of the open ocean. A controller not only clears your flight to depart and clears it to land, but also tells it what headings to turn toward and what waypoints to cross and what airways to use. And most critically, a controller is always watching to ensure compliance, so if a flight is off track, something will be said, because that’s their job — isn’t it? But as the following story will illustrate, that was not always the case.
In fact, as late as the second half of the 1950s, large swathes of American airspace were not under air traffic control jurisdiction at all, and even the parts that were typically lacked radar, which was only just making its way into the civilian world following its invention during the Second World War. The lack of positive or even procedural control in areas away from major airports was a decisive factor behind the 1956 collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon, but in controlled airspace at that time, assurances against collisions were only slightly better. In a controlled non-radar environment, the primary method of collision avoidance on the air traffic control side was procedural separation — the systematic routing of aircraft along designated airways, defined by ground-based navigational aids, at specified altitudes, with blocks of separation between them, measured in either altitude or time. Using this system, planes traveling to certain destinations or along certain routes could be assigned to certain predictable corridors in three-dimensional space, allowing air traffic controllers to anticipate and prevent traffic conflicts despite not being able to see the airplanes themselves.
Procedural separation was made possible in the late 1940s by the construction of the Victor Airways System, a national project to install Very high frequency Omnidirectional Range (VOR) radio beacons throughout US airspace, with traffic corridors (“Victor Airways”) defined by specific radials of specific VORs.
A VOR beacon emits VHF radio signals with ascertainable directionality throughout all 360 degrees, which makes it possible to determine the azimuth (or bearing relative to north) from a specific beacon to the observer. Put more simply, if you are due east of a VOR, and you tune your navigation equipment to the frequency of that VOR, your equipment can tell you that the magnetic bearing (compass heading) from the VOR to your position is 90 degrees. If you take this bearing from the VOR and depict it as an imaginary line stretching infinitely away from the beacon, then that’s a “radial.” From there, a Victor Airway could be defined as the X-degree radial of Y VOR, allowing pilots to precisely follow the air corridors that underpin procedural separation. Furthermore, this allowed air traffic controllers to instruct pilots to fly along (for example) “Victor 30” or “Victor 123,” and using only those two words, a pilot could examine their chart, determine the required radial, tune in to the required VOR, and follow the airway perfectly without receiving detailed instructions.
Prior to the introduction of radar, controllers could only determine the position of an airplane along an airway by soliciting position reports from the crew. Controllers maintained a mental model of the airspace situation by moving little targets around on a physical map and/or flight progress strips on an altitude chart. And if a pilot was mistaken about their position, then so was the controller.
Radar was meant to fix this problem by allowing controllers to verify that a flight is actually located where the pilot says that it is. Today, air traffic control radar displays include all manner of information about tracked aircraft, including their identity, altitude, speed, and more. But the radar in use in the 1950s and 1960s included none of this. This radar, called primary radar, bounced radio signals off of objects in the sky and displayed them as unidentified green blips on the radar scope, and that was it. Controllers therefore had to identify those blips either by asking the crew their position and correlating it with a particular blip, or by asking the crew to make a turn and then identifying which blip had changed course. Once the identity of a blip was established, controllers wrote down that identity on a plastic “shrimp boat” marker, which was then affixed to the display and manually moved at regular intervals to follow the blip.
This system made it possible to determine when a plane was off course, but only if the aircraft had already been identified via two-way communication with the crew, and pilot reports remained the only way to determine an aircraft’s altitude. As such, procedural separation, and the trust that pilots would comply with the controller’s attempts to institute it, remained the cornerstones of collision avoidance on the air traffic control side. On the air side, pilots were always expected to see and avoid other aircraft, and they still are today, but when weather conditions precluded this, the aforementioned trust was the only real assurance against disaster — a fact that should be kept in mind as the following story unfolds.
The morning of the 16th of December 1960 dawned dismal and gray in New York City. Heavy snow still lay on the ground from a previous storm, and conditions had since improved only marginally, with dense clouds beginning at an altitude of 500 to 700 feet with light rain and visibility of about a mile.
Several hundred miles to the west in Columbus, Ohio, Trans World Air Lines flight 266 took to the skies, bound for New York’s LaGuardia Airport, at 9:00 Eastern Standard time. Popular with business travelers, the flight carried a partial load of 39 passengers and five crew aboard a distinctive Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, one of the titans of the propeller era. The four-engine plane was known for its sweeping, fish-like profile and its unique triple tail, but was in the process of being rendered obsolete by the introduction of brand new jet airliners in the late 1950s, and was already considered somewhat antiquated even though this particular airframe was only about eight years old.
Under the command of 39-year-old Captain David Wollam, 32-year-old First Officer Dean Bowen, and 30-year-old Flight Engineer LeRoy Rosenthal, flight 266 cruised uneventfully before making contact with the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, or New York Center for short, at 10:05.
Readers of my earlier article on Avianca flight 052, which involved discussion of the air traffic control structure in the New York area, may recall that by the time of that accident in 1990, there were three ATC layers, with the Center controlling high level traffic, tower controllers handling takeoffs and landings at airports, and an intermediate facility called the TRACON, which was responsible for taking airplanes from New York Center and feeding them into the approach patterns for various airports. In 1960, however, the TRACON had not yet been established, and flights were handed directly from the New York Center to approach controllers at the individual airports without an intermediary.
After contacting New York Center at 19,000 feet, flight 266 was cleared to cross the VOR at Allentown, Pennsylvania at 11,000 feet, then to the Linden intersection on Victor 6, located over Staten Island. Minutes later, en route to Linden and down to 9,000 feet, flight 266 contacted LaGuardia approach control and was told to expect an instrument landing system approach to runway 4 with no delay expected.
At the same time, another plane in contact with New York Center was United Airlines flight 826, which departed Chicago O’Hare International Airport at 9:11 Eastern, bound for New York Idlewild International Airport (now JFK). Despite departing 11 minutes later and from a more distant airport, flight 826 had caught up with TWA flight 266 by virtue of being a jet, a four-engine Douglas DC-8 manufactured almost exactly one year earlier. The DC-8 had first entered service not long before that, in September 1959, as part of a wave of new large jet airliners that were already transforming the aviation industry, cutting travel times by as much as 50%.
On board flight 826 were 77 passengers and 7 crew, including a flight crew consisting of 46-year-old Captain Robert Sawyer, 40-year-old First Officer Robert Fiebing, and 30-year-old Flight Engineer Richard Pruitt. None of the three had more than about 400 hours on the DC-8, or any jet aircraft, for that matter, but such was typical at the time, as jets simply hadn’t been around long enough for experienced jet pilots to exist. As such, Captain Sawyer’s 19,000 flight hours had been accrued almost entirely on the propeller driven DC-3, DC-4, DC-6, and DC-7, none of which could compare to the DC-8’s speed and performance. This shortcoming would soon become all too apparent.
Cruising at 27,000 feet, flight 826 contacted New York Center at 10:12, and three minutes later the Center cleared them to cross the Allentown VOR (also used by flight 266) at 25,000 feet, then fly direct to the Robbinsville, New Jersey VOR, then turn outbound onto Victor airway 123, defined by the 50-degree radial of Robbinsville, as far as the Preston intersection. (This route is depicted by the blue dashed line above.) Preston was explicitly identified as their “clearance limit,” meaning that if they reached that point without receiving further instructions, they were to enter a holding pattern and wait. This was standard procedure for planes bound for Idlewild from the west, and when there were delays at that airport, it was common to have several aircraft holding over Preston at various altitudes, waiting for their turn to approach.
Aboard flight 826, however, not all was in order. At 10:21, the crew reported by radio to United Airlines that their “№2 navigation receiver accessory unit” was “inoperative.” There is no such thing as a “№2 navigation receiver accessory unit” on the DC-8, but there was on prior propeller aircraft, and they were probably referring to the VHF navigation №2 instrumentation unit, which was essentially the same concept.
In order to track VOR beacons, which broadcast on very high frequency (VHF) radio, airliners are equipped with VHF navigation receivers that can be tuned to the particular frequency of any VOR. Like all large aircraft, the DC-8 had two of them, designated №1 and №2 respectively, in order to provide redundancy and allow for more complex navigation techniques.
On the DC-8, information from one receiver or the other was displayed to the pilots via a pair of instruments called the Pictorial Deviation Indicator (PDI) and the Radio Magnetic Indicator (RMI). One copy of each of these instruments was placed in front of the Captain, and another set in front of the First Officer, with the Captain’s side normally receiving data from the №1 receiver, and the First Officer’s side from №2.
To use the PDI, a pilot would tune their receiver to the frequency of the desired VOR, and use a knob to select the desired radial. The radial would then appear on the PDI as a “floating pointer,” essentially an arrow that could move all around the face of the instrument but always pointed toward the VOR. The center of the instrument featured a fixed airplane symbol that represented the current position of the aircraft, and a compass mask rotated around the exterior, keeping the plane’s current heading at the top. The location and orientation of the floating pointer relative to the airplane symbol corresponded to that of the actual VOR radial relative to the aircraft, providing a crude “moving map” depiction of the airplane’s situation with regard to the radial.
In contrast to the PDI, each pilot’s RMI took inputs from both VHF navigational receivers. The RMI display featured a rotating compass mask with the plane’s current heading at the top, and two pointers. The thin pointer made up of a single solid line indicated the bearing (via the compass mask) to the beacon tuned on the №1 receiver, while a thick, hollow pointer indicated the bearing to the beacon turned in №2. This instrument allowed the pilot to tune to a second VOR, permitting identification of a “fix,” or an imaginary waypoint defined by the intersection of specified radials of two VORs.
As an example of navigation using these instruments, consider the instruction given to flight 826 by air traffic control. After reaching Robbinsville, they were to maintain Victor 123 until Preston, which was an imaginary waypoint, or fix. To accomplish this, the pilot flying (in this case, Captain Sawyer) would tune the №1 VHF receiver to the Robbinsville frequency and select the 50-degree radial, which defined Victor airway 123. Sawyer would then use his PDI to align the airplane with the airway, keeping the arrow pointed straight down to the bottom of the instrument, which would indicate that they were tracking along the radial with the VOR behind them. To identify Preston, the pilots would then tune the №2 VHF receiver to the frequency for the VOR in Colts Neck, New Jersey, because Preston was defined by the intersection of the 346-degree radial of Colts Neck with Victor Airway 123. This would cause the 346-degree radial of Colts Neck to appear on First Officer Fiebing’s PDI, and would cause the thick pointer on both pilots’ RMIs to point toward Colts Neck. When the airplane symbol on Fiebing’s PDI was directly on top of the floating arrow, and the thick pointers on the RMIs pointed to a compass heading of 166 degrees (the reciprocal of 346 degrees — radials are measured from the VOR to the plane, so the bearing from the plane to the VOR is the radial minus 180), then that meant they were over Preston.
However, with the №2 VHF navigation receiver inoperative, this task would have become significantly more difficult. How would they identify Preston if they could only track one VOR? Which one should they track? Keep these questions in mind, and we’ll come back later to analyze what the pilots might or might not have done to solve the puzzle, in the opinion of investigators after the fact.
In any case, while the crew of flight 826 informed United of the failure, they didn’t tell air traffic control. As far as the controllers at the New York Center were concerned, nothing about the flight was abnormal, and at 10:21, they cleared flight 826 to descend to 13,000 feet.
However, flight 826 radioed back, “If we’re going to have a delay, we would rather hold upstairs than down.” With bad weather in New York, they expected to encounter delays before being able to land, which would force them to hold, circling in place until they could join the queue. For reasons that were not expressed, the crew preferred to hold at high altitude, perhaps because it would burn less fuel, or perhaps to buy time to reduce their speed before entering the complex New York airspace. Either way, the controller dispelled the matter by informing them that there had not yet been any delays for inbound aircraft, so holding would probably not be necessary.
Shortly thereafter, at 10:23, flight 826 reported crossing Allentown and announced that they were starting down to 13,000 feet. At that point, New York Center called them with a shortcut: “826, cleared to proceed on Victor 30 until intercepting Victor 123 and that way to Preston. It’ll be a little bit quicker.”
This new route shaved 11 miles off flight 826’s journey by negating the need to fly all the way to Robbinsville, which was well out of their way to the south. Instead, they would fly from Allentown as far as Victor airway 30, which was defined by the 294-degree radial of Colts Neck. They would then proceed east along Victor 30 until it intersected Victor 123 west of Colts Neck and south of Preston, as shown above.
Although the crew of flight 826 lodged no protest, this shortcut made an already tricky situation even more difficult. In addition to navigating with only one VHF receiver, they now needed to lose a massive amount of airspeed and altitude in a relatively short distance. After passing over Allentown, they were at 25,000 feet and traveling at an indicated airspeed of about 340 knots, well over twice their approach speed, with only a few minutes remaining to bleed it off before they were expected to join the approach queue into Idlewild. Slowing an airplane traveling at such speed is not as simple as just stepping on the brakes, and it requires a considerable distance, which they almost certainly wouldn’t have, given that there was no indication they would be asked to hold before being instructed to approach Idlewild. They could probably have requested a delay anyway, but they did not.
Instead, flight 826 began to descend rapidly, preventing the aircraft from decelerating. By the time they turned onto Victor 30 at approximately 10:27, they were still traveling at about 340 knots. At 10:29, air traffic control informed them that radar showed them 15 or 16 miles from Victor 123, which at their speed they would cover in just over two minutes, during which they would need not only to slow the plane, but also navigate onto Victor 123. And then, having done so, the travel time along Victor 123 to Preston would be less than one minute, during which time they would need to figure out how to identify the Preston fix with only one working VHF navigation receiver.
Moments later, at 10:30, New York Center cleared flight 826 to descend to 5,000 feet, then asked, “Look like you’ll be able to make Preston at 5,000?”
Flight 826 simply replied that they would try.
By this point, the DC-8 was still at about 13,000 feet, their airspeed was still 340 knots, and Preston was only two minutes away. Even if they did somehow manage to lose 8,000 feet in two minutes, there remained the fact that Preston was still their clearance limit, and if they did not receive further clearance, they would have to enter a holding pattern based around Preston with 1-minute legs and a speed limit of 210 knots. And in order to receive further clearance, they would need to contact Idlewild approach control, which could only happen once they were below 6,000 feet. Perhaps needless to say, compliance with all (or even any) of these directives was physically impossible.
If they had been aware of this situation, New York Center could have resolved it by cancelling the existing instructions and issuing radar vectors, telling flight 826 to fly a particular heading that would allow it to safely double back and lose speed and altitude. But with no indication of a problem, this did not occur. Instead, flight 826 successfully intercepted Victor 123 and then crossed over Preston at 10:32, still traveling at a breakneck pace, at an altitude of around 8,700 feet. The pilots did not report reaching Preston, but did report leaving 7,000 and then 6,000 feet, while New York Center said, “If holding is necessary at Preston, southwest one minute pattern, right turns… the only delay will be in descent.”
Flight 826 replied, “Roger, no delay,” even though at that moment they were already past Preston and should theoretically have been in holding already.
Moments later, flight 826 reported leaving 6,000 feet for 5,000, and New York Center said, “826, roger, and you received the holding instructions at Preston, radar service is terminated. Contact Idlewild approach control…”
One second after acknowledging the instructions, flight 826 called Idlewild approach. “Idlewild approach control, United 826,” they said, “approaching Preston at 5,000 feet.”
But at that moment, they were already 11 statute miles past Preston, and had left the airspace associated with Idlewild and were barreling into airspace controlled from LaGuardia. And although no one yet knew it, disaster was just seconds away.
Meanwhile, in contact with a completely different approach controller at LaGuardia, the crew of TWA flight 266 reached the Linden fix over Staten Island at 10:32 and reported reaching 6,000 feet. LaGuardia approach then cleared them to descend to 5,000 and instructed them to turn right to a heading of 130 degrees, vectoring them toward the approach course into LaGuardia’s runway 4.
A few seconds later, observing an unknown radar blip approaching from the southwest, the controller said, “Traffic at 2:30, six miles, northeast-bound.” This blip belonged to United 826, but since that flight was bound for a different airport and wasn’t in contact with LaGuardia, they had no way of knowing this. The blip probably struck LaGuardia approach control as strange: it was headed into their airspace, had made no attempt to contact them, and was moving at high speed, like a jet. Unidentified blips crisscrossing the airspace were common, but these were normally light aircraft that wouldn’t be flying on an overcast, snowy day. And with no information about the target’s altitude, it was impossible to say whether it represented a collision hazard. All the controller could do was inform flight 266 of the traffic, even though there was no chance they would spot the other plane through the dense clouds.
Subsequently, at 10:33, LaGuardia cleared flight 266 to descend to 1,500 feet and turn left to begin the turn inbound to the runway. Appended to the clearance was another traffic advisory: “…That appears to be jet traffic off your right, now 3 o’clock at one mile, northeast-bound.” But there was no reply.
At around 10:33 and 33 seconds, immediately after flight 826 reported approaching Preston and moments after the end of LaGuardia’s traffic report to flight 266, the two planes collided at an altitude of about 5,200 feet over Staten Island.
At the moment of impact, TWA flight 266 was banked 22 degrees to the left, traveling in a southeasterly direction, while United flight 826 crossed its path on a northeasterly heading in level flight. Traveling at 301 knots, the overtaking DC-8 plowed directly into the right side of the Super Constellation across almost its full breadth, dealing a massive and multifaceted broadside impact. The right wing of the DC-8 sliced through the upraised right wing of the Constellation between the Connie’s №3 and №4 engines, at which point the DC-8’s №4 (rightmost) engine ripped directly through the Constellation’s forward passenger cabin, then separated along with its pylon and the outboard portion of the wing. Simultaneously, the DC-8’s left wing and lower fuselage cut through the triple tail of the Constellation, tearing away its right-hand vertical fin, severing half of the right horizontal stabilizer, and knocking the center vertical fin askew. Moments later, its structural integrity severely compromised, the Constellation’s entire tail section simply broke away.
The collision, lasting just a split second, dealt devastating damage to both aircraft, and in particular the Constellation. Missing most of its right wing and tail, the four-engine propeller plane immediately entered a terrifying death spiral, plunging uncontrollably to the ground as debris spewed from gaping holes in the fuselage. On the ground in Staten Island, witnesses heard a sound like thunder, followed moments later by the horrifying sight of the Constellation plummeting from the clouds, corkscrewing around its missing wing, flames billowing from its ruptured fuel tanks, its remaining engines screaming in futile agony as it fell. Some recalled that it seemed to fall slowly, like a leaf, turning around and around as it traced its long arc toward the ground. With every passing second it disintegrated further, disgorging more and more debris; one witness later told the New York Times that he saw people fall from the plane in flight. But whether inside or outside, the fate of all its occupants was the same, for its brief plunge soon came to an end, as the remains of TWA flight 266 fell like hail over what was then the US Army’s Miller Field, and the adjacent residential neighborhood of New Dorp. Huge, burning pieces of the airplane crashed to earth in the grass airfield, narrowly missing houses and commercial buildings, but by the mercy of chance, no one on the ground was hit.
Meanwhile, the United DC-8 had lost the outboard portion of its right wing, its №4 engine and pylon, and several portions of its left wing leading edge, among other more minor items, but its structural integrity was not compromised, and like a wounded bird it continued to fly. The DC-8 did not have a cockpit voice recorder, its flight data recorder stopped at the moment of the collision, and the pilots never made a distress call, but the imagination fills in the details. Perhaps there were desperate attempts to maintain control, frantic damage assessments, terse statements clipped by fear, exertion, and adrenaline. Or maybe there weren’t — we will never know.
Regardless of what efforts may have been attempted, it was almost certainly impossible to maintain altitude with such severe damage to both wings and a loss of thrust in at least one engine. Most likely, the DC-8 did not so much fly as fall gracefully. Radar continued to track it for more than a minute as it struggled onward for a further 8.5 nautical miles (16 km), crossing the mouth of the Upper Bay and descending over densely populated Brooklyn. Enveloped in clouds, the pilots likely had no idea where they were or where they would land. Some have proposed that they attempted to reach Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the only nearby area clear of buildings, but this is doubtful. Without descending too far into the weeds of speculation, it suffices to say that their directional control of the aircraft was probably limited, because some margin above the stall speed is required in order to bank, and with rather important parts of both wings missing, their stall margin was probably close to nil.
In any case, by the time flight 826 broke out of the clouds at 500 feet, they were out of time and out of options. Witnesses in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn caught sight of the DC-8 streaking low overhead, missing an engine, sinking rapidly, and clearly in trouble. Coming in above row after row of New York brownstones, the jet held its northeast-bound trajectory, then its left wing began to dip, as though entering an asymmetric stall. On the ground below, pedestrians and residents scrambled for cover, and then, with a tremendous roar, the streets erupted in flame.
As it banked into the ground, the DC-8’s left wingtip sliced through the roof of a four-story apartment building at 124 Sterling Place, just west of the intersection of Sterling Place and 7th Avenue, and about two blocks from Flatbush Avenue. The outboard 15 feet (4.5m) of the left wing embedded themselves in the building, while the rest of the airplane, pursued by flying masonry, pivoted downward, crossed the street, and slammed directly into the ironically named Pillar of Fire Church, which was instantly consumed by a massive explosion. The enormous impact reduced the church and a neighboring brownstone to rubble, sending debris flying down the street in both directions. The tail section and aft passenger cabin tore away, ricocheted off a building, and slid backwards up Sterling Place into the intersection with 7th Avenue, followed by the inverted wreckage of the inboard left wing and numerous other blazing fragments. A huge fireball briefly enveloped several addresses, then fell back upon itself, leaving multiple buildings and numerous cars burning in its wake.
As witnesses struggled to comprehend the sight before them, a sudden miracle occurred: somehow, by some means, a survivor appeared. Some accounts say he was thrown from the plane into a pile of snow; others say he crawled from the wreckage under his own power, his clothes aflame, and was pushed into the snow by passersby. But either way, his name was Stephen Baltz, and he was alive.
A great deal was written about Stephen at the time and in the years after, much of it to the chagrin of his family, who prefer that he be remembered for who he was, and not for the plane crash. Suffice it say that Stephen was 11 years old, lived in Chicago, and was traveling alone to join his mother and sister in New York, where they were visiting relatives for Christmas. He was supposed to fly out with them on December 14th, but remained at home for two more days after catching a cold.
It is unclear where in the plane Stephen was sitting, or what exactly shielded him from instant death, but in any case, bystanders rushed to his aid, putting out his burning clothes and keeping him warm while rescuers hurried to the scene. By most accounts, he drifted in and out of consciousness; at one point, he expressed concern for his mother, who was waiting for him.
Within minutes he was rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors quickly realized that his prognosis was grim. The boy had suffered serious burns over a large portion of his face, neck, shoulders, chest, back, and left arm, and his left leg was broken. To make matters worse, he had inhaled flames and damaged the lining of his lungs. The extent of his injuries would be, at the very least, severely life-threatening today; in 1960, it was a clear death sentence. Nevertheless, he appeared alert, and related the story of the crash to his doctors: “I remember looking out of the plane window at the snow below covering the city. It looked like a picture out of a fairy book. It was a beautiful sight,” he said. “Then all of a sudden there was an explosion. The plane started to fall and people started to scream. I held on to my seat and then the plane crashed.”
Although doctors did what they could to stabilize Stephen’s condition, their efforts could only go so far, and by nightfall there was nothing more to be done. Newspapers reported that he was tended by a team of doctors throughout the night, but this appears not to have been the case — apparently, Stephen was left in the sole care of a 21-year-old nurse who was not told his prognosis. Even as they sat there together, alone, news coverage of Stephen’s survival was aired across the country, and over the following days the hospital would receive hundreds of letters for the boy who lived. And indeed, against the odds, he survived the night, and was able to greet his father, William Baltz, who flew in from Chicago to see him. Mr. Baltz recalled that Stephen asked for a book or a TV to entertain himself, as though he were simply bored. He promised to buy Stephen a TV set for Christmas, at which point the boy closed his eyes, went to sleep, and never woke up.
Hours later, Mr. Baltz announced the death of his own son to the television cameras, broadcasting the news to a heartbroken nation.
Despite his overnight fame, Stephen Baltz was, until his very last day, an ordinary 11-year-old boy. He was a Boy Scout, aspired to be an FBI agent, and loved model airplanes. He was friendly, charismatic, and never hesitated to tell a joke. For 26 hours, he also inspired hope in people across America, but the value of his final act is limited, and while the story of his brief but doomed survival is compelling, it’s a bitter way to remember a boy who was, by all accounts, an enjoyer of life.
In total, the disaster destroyed or damaged ten buildings in Park Slope and killed a total of 134 people, including all 44 aboard TWA flight 266, all 84 aboard United Airlines flight 826, and six more on the ground, including a city employee clearing snow, the 90-year-old keeper of the Pillar of Fire Church, and two men selling Christmas trees. This grim toll made the collision over New York the deadliest plane crash in history at the time, surpassing the 128 who perished four years earlier over the Grand Canyon. It was also the first fatal accident in service for any American-built passenger jet, and the first mid-air collision between two airplanes under radar control. These facts shattered the flying public’s assumptions that the advent of jet travel would make flying safer and that the introduction of radar would prevent mid-air collisions. Aviation officials charged with modernizing America’s airways after the Grand Canyon disaster also found themselves asking hard questions about whether their efforts had been aimed at the right places. But before anyone could say for sure what the catastrophe meant, investigators with the Civil Aeronautics Board, the predecessor to today’s NTSB, had to figure out what went wrong.
The fact that a collision occurred was self-evident not only from the testimony of ATC, but from the wreckage itself. Multiple significant pieces of the DC-8 were found on Staten Island mixed in with the remains of the Constellation, including large sections of its left wing leading edge, the right wingtip, the №4 engine and pylon, and various other debris. The DC-8’s №4 engine was found to have ingested parts of the Constellation’s cabin furnishings and at least one passenger (the final report simply says “human remains” were found in the diffuser case and leaves the rest to the imagination). Likewise, pieces of the DC-8’s №4 engine were found inside the Constellation’s passenger cabin; parts of the №4 engine pylon were found embedded in the Connie’s right wing flap panel; fragments of the DC-8’s wing spar were recovered from inside the Constellation’s right wing; and part of the DC-8’s belly antenna was found embedded in the Constellation’s right vertical stabilizer. Clearly, the contact between the two planes was extensive.
The next question was who hit whom. Between recorded radar data, air traffic control transcripts, and the DC-8’s flight data recorder — the first of its kind to be used in a major investigation in the United States — investigators were able to make one thing clear: it was the DC-8, not the Constellation, that was off course. TWA flight 266 was complying with all ATC instructions and was within the normal maneuvering area for approach to LaGuardia Airport when United Airlines flight 826 slammed into it. By that point, flight 826 was 11 statute miles beyond its clearance limit at Preston, traveling at grossly elevated speed, and had strayed into LaGuardia’s sector without notifying air traffic control. Had the boundaries of procedural separation been adhered to, flight 826 never would have been closer than 5 miles from flight 266. So how did this massive deviation go unnoticed?
Ignoring for a moment the flight crew’s obligation to either comply with ATC instructions or report “unable,” the New York Center controller could in theory have noticed at any time that flight 826 was off course, but he did not. The reason appears to lie in the distinction between an aircraft that is receiving radar vectors, like TWA flight 266, and one that may be subject to radar surveillance but is under “own navigation.” United flight 826 fell in this latter category, because New York Center was not providing this flight with “vectors” (e.g., “fly heading 130”), but was rather instructing it to fly to certain fixes via certain airways, to which the crew would have to navigate on their own. As a result, New York Center was not closely tracking flight 826’s every move. Instead, when flight 826 neared its clearance limit at Preston, the controller sought and received assurances that the flight would either reach Preston at 5,000 feet, or enter a hold over Preston to continue descending, at which point the pilots would report their altitude and New York Center would hand them over to Idlewild approach. Flight 826 had given no indication that it would not comply, and with the flight under “own navigation” there was no need to issue further instructions, so the controller simply diverted his attention elsewhere and never saw the blip overfly Preston. Flight 826 was already several miles beyond this point when New York Center finally announced “radar service terminated” and handed them over to Idlewild, but even if he had looked for the blip, which he had no reason to do at that point, it is unclear whether he would have found it in this unexpected location.
Here investigators noted that if a proper “radar handoff” had been conducted, this lapse would not have occurred. During a radar handoff of an aircraft at a sector boundary, an air traffic controller normally calls the controller in the next sector to inform them of an inbound aircraft’s identity, position, and intentions. This allows the next controller to positively identify the flight on radar before it makes contact, enabling smoother handovers. Critically, this procedure also precludes any “gap” during which an aircraft is not under radar control by any facility. If this is not done — and with flight 826 it was not — then the next controller must call the inbound flight and ask for information that will verify their identity on the radar scope, as described early in this article. Until this is done, no one is tracking the flight on radar, which is a liability in busy airspace. However, controllers were not required to perform a radar handoff, and they typically did not do so unless there was an emergency.
Had New York Center called Idlewild in advance to coordinate a radar handoff of flight 826, the Center controller would have had to ascertain the flight’s position on radar, and the Idlewild controller would have had to confirm it. During this process, the fact that flight 826 was off course almost certainly would have been noticed.
In the event, Idlewild approach never realized what was happening. Shortly before the collision, flight 826 reported approaching Preston, despite the fact that it was at that time almost 11 miles beyond it. The Idlewild controller responded to this transmission with information about the weather and the runway in use, and by the time he finished, the collision had already occurred. He never saw any blip near Preston, nor did he have time to look. Subsequently, as United 826 continued in crippled flight over Brooklyn, LaGuardia called to report a possible mid-air collision, in the process conveying their belief that an Idlewild-bound aircraft may have been involved. Although flight 826 could not be raised by radio, Idlewild initially insisted that this flight could not have been involved in a collision in LaGuardia’s airspace because it had just reported “approaching Preston.” This confusion remained for several minutes before the cause of the discrepancy was identified.
LaGuardia had actually been aware that an unidentified aircraft was on a potential collision course with flight 266 for some time, but was unable to do anything about it except provide vague traffic alerts. Without knowing the altitude of the unknown aircraft or whether it posed a collision risk, there was no way to instruct flight 266 to take meaningful evasive action. Furthermore, since the traffic was evidently not bound for LaGuardia, there was no way to contact it to ask its intentions. In theory, LaGuardia could have called Idlewild to see if they knew anything about the airplane, but the chances were slim that this line of inquiry would have resolved the situation before the collision, seeing as flight 826 was not in fact in contact with Idlewild at that time either.
Following the crash, the creation of the New York TRACON, a unified approach control facility responsible for all New York airports, largely precluded this kind of confusion.
The other major question facing investigators was why United flight 826 strayed so far off course in the first place.
On this matter, evidence clearly indicated that the crew of flight 826 were mistaken about their own location. When they reported approaching Preston, it was already many miles behind them. And when asked if they could make 5,000 feet before Preston, they replied that they would try, despite being in a position where this was practically impossible to achieve. Both of these factors suggested that they believed Preston lay farther ahead than it actually was.
Here investigators noted that the crew of flight 826 had flown to Idlewild numerous times and were quite familiar with the route, and the time required to traverse it. However, as they descended out of 25,000 feet, they were given a shortcut that reduced their total track length by 11 miles. It was perhaps not coincidental that this was the same number of miles by which flight 826 had overflown Preston when it reported approaching the fix. Given the high workload required to simultaneously navigate to the fix, communicate with air traffic control, and handle their excessive speed and altitude, it was possible that the pilots never got around to updating their mental model of how long it would take to reach Preston. If so, it would not have struck them as strange that they did not reach it earlier.
However, this did not explain why they appeared to have an erroneous understanding of Preston’s location, but rather only why they failed to notice.
The most obvious reason for this original navigational error was the DC-8’s inoperative №2 VHF navigation receiver. As described earlier in this article, the Preston fix is defined by the intersection of two radials belonging to two different VORs, which means that two receivers are normally required to identify its location. With only one receiver, the complexity of their task was greatly increased. First of all, while on Victor 30 (the 294-degree radial of Colts Neck), Captain Sawyer would have had to anticipate, based on context clues such as elapsed time and speed, when they were approaching Victor 123, and then retune the №1 receiver to track the Robbinsville VOR, from which Victor 123 was defined. (With a second receiver, they could have tracked both Robbinsville and Colts Neck at the same time, allowing them to maneuver easily from Victor 30 to Victor 123 without retuning anything.)
Then, once established on Victor 123, Captain Sawyer would have had to decide how he wanted to locate Preston. Several possible solutions to this puzzle existed. One way was to retune the №1 receiver back to Colts Neck. If this method was chosen, Captain Sawyer wouldn’t have been able to actively monitor whether they were following Victor 123 properly, because he would not be tracking Robbinsville. Instead, he would have to trust that the airplane would stay on course, and wait for the floating arrow indicating the 346-degree radial of Colts Neck (which defined Preston) to center on his PDI. However, if he had done this, then his PDI would have clearly indicated their position relative to the 346-degree radial of Colts Neck, and it was difficult to see how he could have thought Preston still lay ahead. Consequently, this theory was ruled out.
In the CAB’s view, Captain Sawyer probably decided to leave the №1 receiver tuned to Robbinsville in order to make sure he stayed on Victor 123, which was a serious concern given that there were significant winds aloft at the time. Therefore, in order to identify Preston, he might have turned to an altogether different navigation instrument called the Automatic Direction Finder, or ADF.
The DC-8 was equipped with two redundant ADFs with their own, separate receivers that were designed primarily to track a more primitive type of navigational aid called a Non-Directional Beacon, or NDB. Unlike a VOR, an NDB doesn’t encode information related to azimuth, so it’s not possible to identify a particular radial of an NDB. However, when tuned to an NDB, the needle on the ADF instrument will rotate around a fixed compass display to point to the bearing (relative to north) from the plane to the beacon. This tells the pilot in what direction to fly to reach the NDB, but doesn’t provide the simple “moving map”-type display that the PDI can when tracking a particular radial of a VOR.
On flight 826, the crew would have already tuned their ADF receivers to track the Scotland NDB, which was the next navigational aid they would normally use on their approach to Idlewild. Captain Sawyer could have used this NDB, which was essentially due east of Preston, to identify the fix without having to retune any receivers. Watching the ADF display, he would have known he was at Preston when the ADF needle pointed toward 90 degrees on the compass wheel.
However, given the extremely compressed timeframe, the CAB believed it was possible that Captain Sawyer began reading his ADF display as though it was his RMI. Normally when he performed this approach, he would use his PDI to establish the aircraft on Victor 123, and then he would switch his attention to his RMI, watching for the thick needle (with inputs from the №2 VHF receiver) to point toward 166 degrees, the bearing to the Colts Neck VOR from Preston. If, amid the scramble to figure out where they were and what they were doing, he transitioned his attention from his PDI to his ADF, he could have instinctively started watching for the ADF needle to point to 166 degrees instead of the required 90 degrees. If this was the case, then he would have continued all the way to the site of the collision, where the bearing to Scotland was 153˚ and increasing. This would explain why he reported seconds before the collision that he was “approaching” Preston.
As a contributing factor to this sequence of events, the CAB specifically called out the DC-8’s excessive speed. In some of my previous articles, such as Gulf Air flight 072, I have also pointed out grossly excessive speed during descent and approach, but none of these cases quite reach the sheer velocity of United flight 826. Today, there is a speed limit of 250 knots indicated airspeed below 10,000 feet in US airspace (more on that later), but at 10,000 feet flight 826’s indicated airspeed was 340 knots. By the time of the collision, the plane was decelerating at a rate of just under 1 knot per second, but even so, when the DC-8 plowed into the Constellation, it was traveling at 301 knots, at an altitude of only 5,000 feet. “Ludicrous” would probably be an appropriate descriptor of its speed at that point.
This greatly excessive speed reduced the time available to the pilots to resolve their brain-bending navigational situation, made it difficult to comply with ATC instructions, and generally caused the airplane to outrun the checks and balances built into the air traffic control system. But as for why the crew allowed their airspeed to get so high, the CAB’s final report provided no answers whatsoever. In the absence of such analysis, it has been speculated that the issue arose out of the crew’s unfamiliarity with the performance capabilities of jet aircraft. In a radial propeller or turboprop airplane, the maximum achievable speed is much lower and slowing down is simpler. For a pilot like Captain Sawyer, who had spent more than 18,000 hours flying radial propeller planes before transitioning to a jet, the DC-8 might as well have been the Space Shuttle. The particular techniques needed to slow down a jet that can cruise at speeds approaching 500 knots (true airspeed) were not only new to Sawyer, but new to the US aviation industry as a whole, where jets had only been operating since October 1958. Training on jet-specific energy management techniques was likely rudimentary at best, although the CAB report provides no details. Similar deficiencies were later cited in connection with a series of accidents in 1965 involving the then-brand new Boeing 727, in which pilots let their airspeed and descent rate run away from them, resulting in controlled flight into terrain. Those accidents would eventually prompt the FAA to mandate more extensive jet performance and energy management training for new jet pilots.
After considering all the factors leading up to the collision over New York, the CAB, the FAA, and President Kennedy himself all recognized that serious deficiencies existed in the way air traffic control was handled in the United States, despite the ambitious rollout of nationwide radar coverage. In addition to continued reliance on pilot reports for altitude information, which played no direct role in the accident but nevertheless represented an obvious flaw, the crash also revealed that the capabilities of ATC radar systems were not being utilized to their fullest extent. Pilots were still being asked to operate under “own navigation” in close proximity to busy airports, despite adequate capability to provide radar vectors, which would improve ATC monitoring and reduce pilot workload. Furthermore, aircraft already under own navigation could be left without positive radar control by any ATC facility while transitioning from one sector to another, unless the controllers arranged a radar handoff, which they usually did not. This meant that on many approaches, including that of flight 826, aircraft could fly through extremely crowded airspace without, for some indefinite period, any of the safeguards provided by the system of ATC radar.
As a result of the accident, the FAA took several unilateral actions to improve aviation safety, drafting a number of new rules, including some that may be familiar to longtime readers. Rules introduced as a direct result of the collision included the following:
- Pilots must report malfunctions of navigation equipment to ATC while operating in instrument meteorological conditions.
- All aircraft over 12,500 lbs must be equipped with a Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) receiver by 1964. (A DME system can be co-located with a VOR, allowing pilots of properly equipped aircraft to determine their distance from the beacon as well as their radial. If the crew of flight 826 had been able to cross-check their DME distance from the Robbinsville VOR against the DME distance of Preston, they almost certainly would not have flown so far past it.)
- Controllers must instruct arriving jet aircraft to slow down at least three minutes before reaching a holding fix if they appear to be traveling too fast.
- Aircraft must adhere to a blanket speed limit of 250 knots below 10,000 feet and within 30 miles of the destination airport.
In addition to these, usage of radar handoffs greatly increased, even though no rule requiring them was issued at the time. Radar handoffs between sectors are standard procedure today, and the only time a modern airline pilot will normally hear “radar service terminated” is when approaching an uncontrolled airport or a remote airport without radar, which is rare, or entering oceanic airspace.
At the same time, in order to reorient the airspace modernization effort, the FAA launched a program called “Project Beacon,” which aimed to remove the remaining ambiguities in air traffic control radar by enhancing the capabilities of aircraft transponders. At that time, relatively few planes carried transponders, which broadcast identity information that can be picked up by ground-based “secondary radar” systems. These rudimentary transponders could only broadcast two-digit codes similar to military friend-or-foe signals and were not particularly useful for ATC purposes. Project Beacon led to the development of the basic format for modern transponders, which can broadcast four-digit codes, enabling unique identification of every aircraft within a particular airspace without having to rely on position reports to correlate a flight with its radar target. Furthermore, if an air traffic controller is unsure of an aircraft’s location today, they can simply ask a flight to “squawk ident,” and then the pilot can press a button on the transponder panel that highlights that aircraft’s current four-digit code on the controller’s display.
Additionally, research conducted for Project Beacon eventually produced transponders that can broadcast altitude information to air traffic control, which began to see widespread use in the early 1970s.
Many of the new procedures, rules, and technologies that emerged in the wake of the New York mid-air collision now form fundamental parts of the operating environment that might be taken for granted by casual readers of this series and pilots alike. But no rule in aviation was ever handed down like the ten commandments, inscribed on a stone tablet by god himself. Like all the most significant laws of the sky, they were brought about by humans, as a result of tragedy, in order to fulfill our altruistic hope that such horror may not be repeated. No one who is still flying airplanes today (unless there are any particularly spry nonagenarians with a third class medical!) ever flew an airliner before the existence of the 250-knot speed limit, or before the use of transponders, or before passenger planes came equipped with a DME receiver. So perhaps it’s useful to dive into a story from a time before those things came about, in order to understand why they exist, to see the same destruction that confronted those who created them, to look into the eyes of a young boy as he lay in the snow on a burning street in Brooklyn.
For those who don’t fly airplanes but were present for the crash, there are other ways to remember. A memorial has since been built in the Green Wood Cemetery, and in the hospital where Stephen Baltz lived his last hours, a plaque reads, “Our tribute to a brave little boy.” Embedded in it are the coins that Stephen carried in his pocket aboard the plane, which his father left in the donation box after he passed away.
At the scene of the disaster, a five-story condominium now rises where the Pillar of Fire Church once stood, and streets once lined with burning rubble are now lined with trees. There is no obvious sign that a horrific tragedy took place there over 60 years ago. But if you look up at 124 Sterling Place, you might notice that the building is still missing its decorative cornice where the wingtip of the DC-8 sliced through its roof, leaving behind an architectural scar — a subtle, physical reminder of a crash that left a tremendous intangible impact not only on those who witnessed it, those who lost loved ones, and those who lived on Sterling Place, but on aviation itself, which was forever changed.
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Note: this accident was previously featured in episode 59 of the plane crash series on October 20th, 2018, prior to the series’ arrival on Medium. The original text was then uploaded to Medium on August 21st, 2019. This article is written without reference to and supersedes the original, which has been removed.